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Collective and Individual Morality

We have moral needs -- most of us anyway. This is the claim of the U.S. philosopher Susan Neiman, director of the Einstein institute in Potsdam, Germany. She writes:

[Moral needs] include the need to see our own lives as stories with meaning -- meanings we impose on the world, a crucial source of human dignity -- without which we hold our lives to be worthless... Demands for moral clarity ring long, loud bells because it is something we are right to seek. (Moral Clarity, p.4)

Whatever influence presses upon our thinking, our morality is our decision. It is a matter of drawing a line across which we believe others should not go and that we should not go – a line we may cross out of impulse, followed by regret.

Our decisions are ours despite being social creatures and our minds being to some extent cultural creations. In small, ancient tribal societies, people were more uniform in their attitudes than they are in today's diverse societies of millions. Today we choose whether to adhere to the faith of our parents or some other faith or no faith at all. And we have a greater freedom to be different than have peoples in the past. Neighbors tend to leave neighbors to their religious and other preferences so long as it does not intrude on their lives.

In early authoritarian societies, community absolutes were established regarding sexual acts, property and religious worship. Property owners wanted their ownership protected. Women were the property of men. And monotheists contributed to enforcing the moral certainties of their faith. In ancient times, adultery was punished by stoning to death. It still exists in some tribal Islamic societies where what they know of Western freedoms are derided as godlessness. Moralities and authoritarianism during the Middle Ages in Europe gave rise to the burning of people at the stake and the murderous crusades against heretics. It gave rise to Ferdinand and Isabella's Inquisitor General Torquemada, and it gave rise to the Dominican priest in Florence Italy, Savonarola.

In modern societies are cultural traditions that outline what is ethical and what is not. These traditions give to some of us a vision of morality as a means to personal salvation. Some of us believe that it is not proper for a man and woman to live together without having been married by their Church, or the state. Some of us believe that it is not proper for a married person to have sexual relations other than with one's spouse – a view that was not common among Europe's aristocracy, including its kings. Nor was it the view of presidents Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy.

Into the 21st century, people complain about what they call permissiveness, while moral concerns remain among parents considered permissive. Such parents want their sons and daughters to be happy and treated well as children and into adulthood, and for some of them this is what morality is about: people being treated well.

More about the source of morality, some of us believe in the "good nature" of our children. Some of us believe, as the ancient Taoists did, that we can rely on our good nature and allow our impulses. But impulses are not always self-serving. Life is a series of choices sometimes made in an instant. We have all seen or heard of examples of devoutly religious people letting themselves go astray. Some excuse their behavior on being human – while being human excuses nothing. The question of our ability to reason intrudes upon the question of morality. Because we can choose, some of us believe, we are responsible for what we do. Some people of faith are well aware of the dangers of impulse and try to protect themselves from it by a more intense faith. Some of us believe that believing in impulse adds to its dangers and that we can better protect ourselves from it by awareness and education.

Regarding reason as a source of morality, the French philosopher Henri Bergson rejected it. He described the way to reality as through intuition. He criticized the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant believed that our wills are autonomous and that we ought to act in accordance with what we recognise is good for society. Our behavior, he held, ought to rise from a moral foundation of reason. Bergson believed – intuitively perhaps – that Kant was naive about the human psyche. Bergson wrote of a morality based religion. He believed that we experience psychic tensions if we deviate from that morality and that we can return to it effortlessly.

Some described as postmodernists see Bergson's view as metaphysical nonsense and philosophy students having to make sense of his writings. Postmodern ethicists are closer to John Dewey (also not an easy read). Dewey wrote of humanity advancing its moral choices by learning through experience what is beneficial and what is harmful – moral pragmatism. We achieve moral progress and maturity, wrote Dewey, when we reflect upon our own value judgments in regard to what we and humanity in general are doing.

Seeing people improving their ability to make independent moral choices through education stands in contrast to the idea that religion is necessary in making moral choices. In the twenty-first century, independent people being adult and making moral judgments contrasts with a clan of hunter-gatherers participating in group think or people in the Middle Ages also following group think and religious norms. About independent thinking, Susan Neiman writes:

Those who view religion as necessary for morality reduce us to the moral level of four-year-olds. If you follow these commandments you'll go to heaven, and if you don't you'll burn in hell is just a spectacular version of the carrots and sticks with which we raise our children: If you clean up your room you'll get the cookie, and if you don't you'll stay inside. (Moral Clarity, p. 14)

Neiman separates herself from a morality that is bargaining -- like the pagans in ancient times who hoped that his gods would protect him if he sent them a gift of some kind, perhaps the soul of someone sacrificed.

Neiman also separates herself from what some people derisively refer to as Dewey's moral pragmatism. She writes that "sometimes morality and self-interest part company." And she separates herself from the idea that the basis of morality is that which maintains civil order – obvious, I must say, in looking at Syria in April 2011.

What, then, can one base one's moral beliefs upon? Those who have no sacred book of rules to refer to, no absolutistic source are left with their our own judgment, values drawn experiences and education and their sense of decency. The education part is what causes many of us to see the errors in judgment that we made when we were younger.

What people think of as decency may differ from person to person and differ with circumstance. The circumstance of criminality may cause us to support shooting someone to protect others. Some of us see decency as freedom from enslavement, freedom to think and to pursue opportunity and happiness, freedom from whatever robs a person of his ability to maintain the sense of dignity that comes naturally to many people. Many of us have the sense of decency lacking in the mob of Egyptian young men who tore at the body of the journalist Lara Logan.

You might prefer to believe in a morality based on what you consider solid absolutes and an all-encompassing formula for action, but what is being said here is that today the many who think for themselves become the artist of their own life. Choices made becomes their morality, and so long as it does no harm to their neighbors it remains not the business of their neighbors. Those who would want to choose for them might call this moral relativism because the morality of the person doing the choosing is not of some universal standard. But to the person doing the choosing it's not relative at all.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.